When it was released 25 years ago this week, Groundhog Day was considered a romantic comedy. How then did it become one of the most spiritually significant films of our age?
Today, believers from almost every religious background consider the comedy to be spiritually meaningful—even though no one agrees on exactly what it means.
In 2003, director Harold Ramis told The New York Times, “At first I would get mail saying, ‘Oh, you must be a Christian, because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief.’ Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it, because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation center for 30 years and my wife lived there for 5 years.’”
All of them—Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists—are right about it being a spiritual film. And yet all of them are wrong, because they assume the meaning reveals something about their particular religion. The reality is that Groundhog Day resonates with so many diverse traditions because it reveals a universally received aspect of common grace.
Stuck in the Time Loop
But before we consider its meaning, let’s review the plot of the movie.
Phil Connors (played by a never-better Bill Murray) is an arrogant and narcissistic weatherman for a Pittsburgh TV station who is forced to travel to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. When he tries to leave after the ceremony with his news producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) he gets stuck in the town overnight.
When he wakes up the next morning, though, he finds he’s reliving the previous day—Groundhog’s Day. No one else seems to notice, so he assumes he’s merely having a bad dream. But when he wakes up again, he’s stuck living the same February 2. Phil’s trapped in a time loop from which he can’t escape. He tries suicide, but his “death” merely resets him to wake up at the same time, on the same day, in the same bed.
At first Phil becomes depressed. Then, realizing the possibilities open to him, he stumbles into hedonism. He soon discovers, though, that the “do what thou will” lifestyle is empty and boring. Eventually, Phil finds the most satisfying course of action is to live for others. Using his prescient knowledge gained from repeatedly living through the same events, he begins to spend each day helping others avoid accidents and other mishaps. Through the process he becomes a better person, though he remains discouraged he can’t prevent the death of a homeless man.
Being a romantic comedy, Phil falls in love with Rita. Eventually, she falls in love with him too. After an eventful day together in which she recognizes how much he’s changed, Phil is released from his time loop and wakes (in bed with Rita) to find it’s now February 3.
Phil Learns We’re Hardwired for Virtue
The lesson Phil has learned is so simple it could be embroidered on a throw pillow. In fact, it has been. The lesson is a secular version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
That’s the lesson for Phil, which we non-narcissists should already have learned. What we should take away from the movie (whether we realize it or not) is the recognition that we are, as the late Peter Lawler would say, “stuck with virtue.” As Lawler explained,
We’re stuck with virtue as human beings. There are natural reasons for that. We’re hardwired for virtue, so to speak, because we’re hardwired for a kind of language and or speech that opens us to the truth about ourselves and our world that no other animal can acquire. And we really can’t change our hardwiring in a way that will make us both distinctively or proudly human and genuinely happy—and we want both—without being good, without acting in a truthful and morally responsible way.
We think we need unfettered freedom to be happy. But we are, as God designed us, “hardwired for virtue.” We may try to escape, but like Phil, we are not free to make our lives anything we want. If we want to live a happy life, we are limited by the constraints of such virtues as love, integrity, honor, courage, hope, and so on. If we ignore virtue, as Phil tried to do, we can’t even begin to understand who we are. As Lawler says,
In a time of unprecedented abundance and freedom that’s largely the product of the modern, technological approach to the world, we do find it harder than ever to know who we are. And so we find it harder than ever to know what to do. But we’re still stuck with answering those questions to live well—or nobly and happily—with what we’ve been given. There’s little that’s more hellish than my being stuck with the perception of “pure possibility,” the perception that every door is open to me with no guidance at all concerning which one to choose. That’s the lesson, for example, of the novels of our physician-philosopher Walker Percy, not to mention the philosophic film ‘Groundhog Day.’ The pure democracy imagined by Socrates or communism as imagined by Marx or the realm of techno-freedom imagined by our libertarians (all of which amount to the same thing) are all descriptions of the hell we have mistaken for heaven when we misunderstand who we are.
As humans we are all stuck with virtue, because it is one of the ways God uses to restrain sin in the life of the individual and in society. By this common grace we are allowed a glimpse of what human flourishing looks like.
Futility of Sanctification without a Savior
But this is why Groundhog Day is ultimately not a ‘Christian’ movie. Phil was trapped reliving Groundhog’s Day for eight years, eight months, and 16 days before he learned he was stuck with virtue. But he’ll spend the rest of eternity realizing that’s not enough to save him.
Phil achieves a type of sanctification, but it comes without redemption. He responds appropriately to the prodding of a God-given conscience, which leads him to become more virtuous. But without the redeeming blood of Christ, his virtue will ultimately be for nothing. Phil found an earthly love, and it led him to become virtuous; what he needed was the heavenly love to find him, so that his virtuous living would come in response to the free gift of salvation.
Only the uncommon grace of Jesus Christ delivers us from the futility of life alienated from the One who numbered our days (Job 14:5).